Most visitors carry on from Udon Thani due north to Nong Khai, but making a detour via LOEI, 147km to the west, takes you within range of several towering national parks and sets you up for a lazy tour along the Mekong River. The capital of a province renowned for the unusual shapes of its stark, craggy mountains, Loei is also the crossroads of one of Thailand’s least-tamed border regions, with all manner of illegal goods coming across from Laos. This trade may have been reined in – or perhaps spurred on – by the opening in 2008 of a 3km-long bridge across the Heuang River, 80km northwest of Loei, to Xainyabouli province in Laos (the crossing is open to foreigners, but there’s no public transport on either side). Despite its frontier feel, the town, lying along the west bank of the small Loei River, is friendly and offers legitimate products of its own, such as sweet tamarind paste and pork sausages, which are for sale along Thanon Charoenrat, Loei’s main street, and the adjacent Thanon Oua Aree. But Loei is really only useful as a transport hub and a base for the nearby national parks. The most popular are Phu Kradung National Park, which has some excellent walking trails, Nam Nao National Park, home to around a hundred different species of mammals, and Phu Reua National Park, which affords magnificent views over Laos.Read More
Phi Ta Kon
Phi Ta Kon
One reason to make a special trip to Loei province is to attend the unique rainmaking festival of Phi Ta Kon, or Bun Phra Wet, held over three days either at the end of June or the beginning of July in the small town of Dan Sai, 80km to the southwest of the provincial capital. In order to encourage the heavens to open, townsfolk dress up as spirits in colourful patchwork rags and fierce, brightly painted masks (made from coconut palm fronds and the baskets used for steaming sticky rice), then rowdily parade the town’s most sacred Buddha image round the streets while making fun of as many onlookers as they can, waving wooden phalluses about and generally having themselves a whale of a time. Top folk and country musicians from around Isaan are attracted to perform in the evenings during Phi Ta Kon; the afternoon of the second day of the festival sees the firing off of dozens of bamboo rockets, while the third day is a much more solemn affair, with Buddhist sermons and a purification ceremony at Wat Phon Chai. The carnival can be visited in a day from Loei (ask at Loei’s TAT office for transport details), though rooms are hard to come by at this time. The town’s main permanent attraction is the Dan Sai Folk Museum on Thanon Kaew Asa, the town’s high street, which explains some of the traditions surrounding Phi Ta Kon and has an impressive collection of vivid costumes and masks.